You are here:   Beethoven > Opera is Not Just Our Most Expensive Noise
Feelings released from darkness: The set design for the Queen of the Night from Mozart's "The Magaic Flute", by Simon Quaglio, 1818 (credit: Getty)
"Of all the noises known to man," wrote Molière, "opera is the most expensive." He was referring to the spectacles staged for the court of Louis XIV, in which dances and entr'actes were part of the entertainment and in which the king himself — who was an accomplished dancer — would sometimes appear on stage. The plots were drawn from classical and mythical sources, and the stylised singing and dancing corresponded to the ritualised setting of the drama. We can appreciate these operas today, partly because their leading exponent, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was a master musician, who could elicit heartfelt sentiment from whatever nymph-and-shepherd-infested libretto came his way.

Opera has moved on since Lully's day; but it is still the most expensive of our noises. Costs didn't matter so much when the royal purse looked after them. But the transfer of opera from the court to the town, and from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, meant that producers had to look for sales rather than patronage in order to cover their outlay. It wasn't so difficult when the supply of singers was abundant, the sets cheap, and the music easy to sight-read. But by the time the crisp dramas of Mozart and Gluck had morphed into the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner and the virtuoso spectacles of Verdi, opera involved investment beyond anything imaginable at the court of Louis XIV. Verdi was immensely popular and the costs of his smaller productions were more than covered by the sales. Wagner was popular too: but his ambitions so outstripped the bourgeois readiness to pay for them that he had to look back to the old way of doing things, calling on a royal purse to subsidise his dreams. Those two great composers helped to create an art form that stands today at the apex of Western culture, but which is always short of funds.

A full-scale spectacle must run for an extended period if it is to cover its costs. Hence an opera can put the composer's name in lights for days on end, and the more costly the production the longer it must run. But it is not the promise of repeat performances that draws so many composers to this supremely demanding art form. Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky's one full-length opera, The Rake's Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma "Mozart".

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu's Oedipe, Busoni's Doktor Faust and Pfitzner's Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

View Full Article
August 15th, 2014
7:08 PM
Roger Scruton`s new book `The Soul of The World` has a samples-advert in the Guardian today. How twee and quaint his questions and answers are. He`s the philosophic equivalent of Morris Dancing with straw men. Unfortunately his `rivals` in music and academe have morphed into Morris Tartling - the anti-Israel letter signed by Slavoj Zizek,Judith Butler and the musician Brian Eno (amongst others) actually proving Israeli Intelligence is the more intelligent. Israel is (front line) situationist. And armed to the teeth against it`s soulless enemies who want death for it`s life and culture. Perhaps the scientific and theologically correct title for Roger Scruton`s book is `The Soullessness of The Society of the Spectacle`. The Marquis de Sade is more enlightening about Isis,Hamas,Loco Haram and their allies than the left or right wing philosophers and feminists. The exception being Camille Paglia whose writing about music and civilisation Scruton totally ignores. Scruton`s Morris Dancing festival of philosophy has no Queen of the May? He has no icons or sculptures of the Mother of God either ?

July 29th, 2014
3:07 PM
cunningfox totally overestimates himself (starting with his name). pedanticbore would be empirically accurate. He`s now stuck with repeating his `totalitarian` statement forever. And he`ll never have a girlfriend.

July 26th, 2014
7:07 AM
The usual bunch of ignorant comments from the tone-deaf. Get some ears, people. The whole history of pop music (or whatever meaningless term you want to give it) has less musical value than a single bar of Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner or Britten. If you had a musical brain in your collective heads, you'd understand that. Oh, sorry - you probably think a bar is a place where you get drink before the pop concert, so that you can cope with the mindless, simplistic nonsense you're going to have to endure for the next several hours, to justify the hundreds of pounds you've shelled out for it, because it's what everyone else does and you don't want to look silly by not doing what everyone else does. My heart bleeds for you.

July 21st, 2014
3:07 PM
Trevor Bailey is deluded. Scuton`s "point" doesn`t "prove" anything at all. The article is an advert for Rudland and the marketing category `opera`. Nothing wrong with that. What Schopenhauer had to say about music is more truthful. My favourite civilised capitalist academic is Camille Paglia.

Trevor Bailey
July 20th, 2014
10:07 PM
Roger Scruton 'understands' opera in the same many do: certain works are transcendent above & beyond the necessary limits of reason. His critics here have made the standard democratic appeal to Other Tastes dressed up in Continental obscurity & faux rationalism. And good luck to them, for it rather proves his point about envy. So each to his own.

July 20th, 2014
2:07 AM
"Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu's Oedipe, Busoni's Doktor Faust and Pfitzner's Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten." What rock is this person living under? In the last ten years, Enescu's 'Oedip' has grown from one recording to three; Palestrina is still performed often in Germany and elsewhere, etc., etc. Rationalizations, evasions, and half-truths. No wonder he doesn't want the responsibility of writing an opera. If he doesn't want to task himself with research on a simple article, he can't and won't handle the workload of an opera. End of story.

hegels advocate
July 18th, 2014
3:07 PM
It`s entirely irrational of Roger Scruton to say opera stands at the apex of our culture. No it doesn`t. From his false proposition all his other irrationals flow. He`s got hold of the wrong end of art`s ding an sich. Adele`s `Set Fire To The Rain` and Lana del Rey`s `Born To Die` and `Dark Paradise` are also philosophically remarkable. `Is That You,Darling?` by Royal Family&the Poor is pretty good too. Sampled vocals from a film femme fatale,Inna from Femen and a russian poet included. Available from Gothic Moon Records website.

Steve Meikle
July 18th, 2014
5:07 AM
Forget opera. A great symphony has all this without the sheer silliness that Doctor Johnson said was opera when he called it an irrational entertainment

Malcolm McLean
July 14th, 2014
8:07 PM
Surely Golding's novel is the high art, the opera a derivative?

hegel`s advocate
July 3rd, 2014
2:07 PM
Scruton can`t blame the Arts Council for its capitalist use of the term `opera` as a marketing category. Scruton is doing the same. That`s bureaucratic capitalism for you. The Youtube trailer is only 20 secs so we`ll have to wait until more is available. What would Scruton/Rudland make of `Clones` and `Are You Evil?` by Evil Blizzard (from Preston,Manchester)? (all on youtube) An entertaining future in music and philosophy? According to Suzanne Moore in the Guardian the Tory Party has no culture. Cameron prefers Cilla Black,Bruce Forsyth and foreign oligarchs round for his fundraising business-dinner meetings. Where is Michael Gove`s GUITARS NOT GUNS/MAKE ART NOT WAR campaign for the madrasas,mosques and schools ? In Islam Boko Haram is mandatory for the Caliphate but Procul Harum (and all western music)is banned. The Caliphate has declared its evil war on western civilisation. Are any tories (or any other politicians) not indifferent to the Tate exhibition `Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation` ?

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.